Monday, March 16, 2009

Know your sceptics from your deniers...

I keep getting asked to respond to the arguments put forward by climate change sceptics and deniers, which is difficult as I'm not a climatologist and the science is very complex once you get past the simple facts of:

1. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the environment (or we wouldn't be here);
2. Increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the environment will trap more heat;
3. Greenhouse gas concentrations are much higher now that they were in pre-industrial times due to fossil fuels;
4. Therefore you would expect temperatures to rise since the industrial revolution and they appear to have done so.

But the climate is a complex 4 dimensional beastie with natural cycles and a complex set of positive and negative feed back loops, so it is impossible to make an easy correlation between gas concentration and, say, average temperature. It is in this grey area that the sceptics and deniers thrive.

So let's have a look at the difference between a sceptic and a denier:

Sceptic: someone who doesn't believe manmade climate change is a dominant force having analysed the data with an open mind. Note that high profile sceptics like Bjorn Lomborg and Nigel Lawson accept the basic principle (they'd be daft not to) but think the IPCC is overstating the impacts by a long way. That's all part of the debate.

Denier: someone to whom the whole idea is anathema, whatever the evidence, for one or more of the following reasons:

1. They see it as a left wing plot to smother the economy and raise taxes (Melanie Phillips, Vaclav Klaus)
2. They are natural contrarians who always swim against what they see as comfortable orthodoxy (Christopher Booker, David Bellamy)
3. They make a living out of it (Fred Singer, the hosts of that anti-climate change conference last week who were funded by Exxon-Mobil until 2006)

Deniers hate being called deniers - they say they are sceptics, but nobody would ever admit to being 'in denial'!

There is a very interesting correlation between deniers on climate change and, say, people who 'disbelieve' the health effects of passive smoking. Fred Singer has been funded to 'disprove' both in his time, the Heartland Institute holds events on both, and Christopher Booker has railed against passive smoking, the link between vCJD and BSE, and indeed the theory of evolution (he's a historian by the way).

I've taken apart Christopher Booker before, but the latest person's arguments to be thrown in front of me were from Prof Bob Carter. Prof Carter is a scientist working in a related discipline with a raft of peer-reviewed papers and academic awards to his name. He has been popping up in the media and in person around the world 'debunking' the idea of manmade climate change and attacking carbon taxes for at least six years. Just one problem. He won't submit his anti-climate change arguments to a peer-reviewed academic journal. Why not? He told the Sydney Herald "the role of peer review in scientific literature was overstressed."

Now that is rubbish and he knows it. Peer review is the basic quality control system in science. All the IPCC analysis Carter derides as "lacking scientific rigour" is peer reviewed. Otherwise anyone could throw up any old nonsense and say it was a fact...

The scientific community has challenged Carter to "put up or shut up", but he refuses to face up to the challenge. It is also worth noting that he is on the board of an organisation funded by the energy industry, but again the Prof says "whether or not a scientist had been funded by the fossil fuel industry was irrelevant to the validity of research".

I came to this thinking Carter was a sceptic, but now I think he's a denier. And there's an easy way for him to disprove that assertion - peer review.

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